30 May, 2024


The First Rathinam Memorial Lecture: Water For Jaffna By Dr. K. Vigneswaran

By S. Ratnajeevan H. Hoole

Prof. S. Ratnajeevan H. Hoole

Jaffna is in seeming throes of death, not least because of the lack of water. Teachers have fled. We have rote tuition, not education. Street killings are on the rise. That death shows even in the diminishing standards of English.

The evening of Saturday July 22 saw the Institution of Engineers (Northern Chapter) and the Jaffna Managers’ Forum organizing the first Eng. M. Rathinam Memorial Lecture. The premier talk was by Dr. Kasilingam Vigneswaran who is perhaps the first Sri Lankan to have done a doctorate in finite element field computation in its early days and that too at Waterloo University that many say is the best engineering school in Canada. Rathinam had been Deputy Director of Irrigation, a post equivalent to today’s Director. Vigneswaran worked for him and left as Director.

The evening was a rare event showing that Jaffna still has people who speak good English and think logically as shown in their mastery of grammar. Besides Vigneswaran, there was Irrigation Engineer V. Regunathan (presently President SLAAS who introduced Engineer Rathinam), and Highways Engineer B. Thillainathan who delivered the Vote of Thanks. All three spoke grammatically with pleasing old-school pronunciation. Broomstick mustachioed Renganathan in the fashion of Tamil movie villains made the unspoken point that good English is not the exclusive preserve of the westernized.

Regunathan had worked under Rathinam who honed into him the attention to detail an engineer needs. Regunathan  mentioned how irrigation engineers working in isolated areas tend to drink in the evenings, but when invited by Rathinam to a drink, he had to decline as a teetotaler. Rathinam then ordered Regunathan to start a Department Club in Anuradhapura and organize drinks which Regunathan dutifully did. The liquor was safe with him.

I went to Nigeria in October 1977 having just turned 25. Rathinam Aiyah also came at the same time with a large group of about 30 engineers from our Water Board to run Oyo State Water Corporation. He had already worked 5 years in Nigeria.

Standardization was turning the screws on Tamils. Neither he nor I would have left Sri Lanka except for the need to educate family members abroad – he his two sons and I my brothers. His sons both graduated as engineers in England and one returned to Sri Lanka and on his father’s advice asked to be assigned under Vigneswaran. Rathinam and Shanmuganathan (another Water Board Engineer) had done their B.Sc. Eng. (London) at Maradana under my maternal uncle George Somasundaram and therefore opened up to me quickly despite our age difference. Shan and Rathinam were regular drinking partners downing smuggled whisky bought cheap at the Benin border. Benin had liberal import rules for liquor.

It was a tough life. When a pipe burst, all of Ibadan town would be without water for days. Teaching at Ibadan Polytechnic, I had my own supplementary water supply with bowsers delivering white coloured water, with the delivery man cheerfully telling me ”Here is your supply of toddy, Sah.” It was good water after the sediments had settled down and it was a pleasure to have Water Corp engineers coming home for a shower with their families and to have buckets filled for their cooking.

Those were times when Africans hardly had any heart disease so doctors were poor at detecting it. One of our engineers suffering a heart attack, Mr. Sabanathan, went to a clinic where the doctor asked him to climb the stairs for an X-Ray of his chest and he was declared fit and sent home to die that night. Thereafter Shan Aiyah had a heart attack. He went to the Teaching Hospital Emergency where he was in a long queue with mainly accident victims with ears ripped and hanging precipitately, loss of limbs, heavy bleeding etc. from the reckless Nigerian roads – a hideous enough sight to make a healthy man have a heart attack. The friend who took Shan Aiyah explained to the nurse the emergency and was told “Heart or foot, come in the queue.” Shan Aiyah survived that heart attack but died of another thereafter.

Perhaps because of this Rathinam Aiyah called it quits after his tour of duty and retuned at the same time as I in December 1980 when I decided to go for my doctorate. Rathinam came with a brand new fancy car whereas in Nigeria we in government had a Beetle and those in the private sector had a Peugeot 403, the only two cars assembled there. I leapt at the opportunity when he asked me to drive his car to Jaffna which I did.

Rathinam Aiyah’s settling in his native Urelu was Jaffna’s privilege. He volunteered offering his service and expertise to giving Jaffna an assured supply of water. The university gave him an office. For this esoteric bit on water, I turn to Dr. Vigneswaran, an Honourary Life Fellow of IESL and an acknowledged authority on Water.

The theme you selected for the first Rathinam Lecture is “Water for the Jaffna Peninsula”. Why is “water” a pressing issue currently?

The recent war has created 89,000 women-headed families in the North and East. Of them 29,000 belong to the Jaffna peninsula. These are families with little or no livelihood to survive. Urgent action is required to provide them livelihoods and jobs for unemployed youths. That means industrialization and agriculture for which water is a necessity besides for domestic purposes.

It is  your view that water for the Jaffna Peninsula must necessarily come from Iranamadu Reservoir, which is across the Kanagarayan Aru. Some 50 years ago, the Peninsula had a population of over 1 million. Jaffna Peninsula managed with the groundwater. The current population is around 700,000. Yet there is a problem. Why?

Over the past 50 years, uncontrolled pumping from wells and increased use of water have increased brackishness of water. Uncontrolled use of fertilizer for agriculture has brought about pollution from nitrates, phosphates and heavy metal. Lastly, improperly constructed toilet pits have introduced dangerous pathogenic micro-organisms.

What about the “River for Jaffna’’  said to have been proposed by Arumugam, your senior in the Irrigation Department?

What Arumugam had in mind was reclamation of the Jaffna Peninsula by leaching out the brackish water using barrages and regulators. Only Thondaman Aru Barrage and the Ariyalai regulator are in place.  To move this proposal  forward,  two-way regulators have to be built at Mulliyan and at the meeting point of Thondamanaru Lagoon and Upparu Lagoon. It will not be necessary to build the Chundikulam bund at this stage.

The farmers of Iranamadu are objecting to releasing water for domestic use in Jaffna from the tank. Is it fair by them?

Going back to the history of the Iranamadu Reservoir, Kanagarayan Aru has a total catchment of 350 square miles of which 227 square miles are intercepted by Iranamadu  Reservoir. It was first constructed in 1922 to a capacity of 40,000 acre feet. Subsequently, it was raised in 1951, 1954 and finally in 1975 to a capacity of 106,500 acre feet. When the current raising to a capacity of 120,000 acre feet was contemplated in 2005, there was a tacit understanding that the additional capacity of 13,500 acre feet would be made available for supplying domestic water to the Jaffna Peninsula as well as to the Kilinochchi Town and other townships of Kilinochchi District such as Pallai, Pooneryn, Elephant Pass, Paranthan and Ariviyalnagar where the Kilinochchi Campus is.

There was no intention whatsoever of denying  the rights the farmers of Iranamadu which they already enjoyed. Kalapoham (Maha) cultivation of the 20,000 acres  would never be affected. Only the Sirupoham (Yala) cultivation extent could be lower during a drought year. Ironically, some 60% of the owners of the paddy lands of Iranamadu are residents of Jaffna Peninsula and they are also objecting to the water supply proposal.

Why are the people of Kilinochchi not involved in these discussions?

The people of Kilinochchi belong to three categories – the original colonists hailing from the islands off Jaffna, the gentlemen farmers from Jaffna who visit their paddy fields for cultivation, and the poor workers from the estates displaced by the ethnic strife and who own no land and are not represented by any NGO. NGOs making noise must really represent the estate Tamils for proper representation.

If Iranamadu water will not be available  for whatever reason, what other possibilities are there from Kanagarayan Aru?

There are two distinct possibilities. The first is the possibility of a tank which has been referred to as the proposed Kanagarayan Aru Reservoir near Puliyankulam under the Mahaweli Ganga  Scheme. I would prefer to call it the Periya Kanagarayan Kulam to distinguish it from the already existing Kanagarayan Kulam and treat it as a tank on its own merit and not as part of the Mahaweli Scheme.  This would have a catchment of 33 square miles and a capacity of 30,000 acre feet. This reservoir would not have a sluice, but only a silt ejector. All water above the full supply level will spill into the parent Kanagarayan Aru. 

A similar possibility with a larger catchment area would be Karuppattimurippu Tank near Mankulam, with 30,000 acre feet capacity. This has been referred to by Arumugam in his book published in 1969. However, it is to be noted that both these proposals will intercept the Kanagarayan Aru catchment above Iranamadu Reservoir. 

Can we not manage without Mahaweli waters because of Cadmium, Kidney Disease and all that?

Cadmium poisoning can come from any water source using fertilizer drain-off.  But Mahaweli water can be the cause for another concern because water from inter-provincial rivers is always tied up to human settlements leading to ethnic tensions. It is therefore best to avoid such sharing.

What of harnessing the spill waters of Iranamadu Reservoir  through a pickup anicut and conserving it in a small, but raised  tank at the northern periphery of Elephant Pass Lagoon?

There is a proposal to construct a small tank with a surface area of 2.5 square kilometres and to hold 10,000 acre feet of water spilling out of the Iranamadu Reservoir. The base of this tank will be on limestone and its possible behavior has to be thoroughly investigated.

Besides  Kanagarayan Aru, what other river is there for  water supply to Jaffna?

There is a distinct possibility from Parangi Aru which has a catchment of 325 square miles. We could have Upper Parangi Aru Reservoir with a catchment area of 128 square miles and a capacity of 24,300 acre feet (30 mcm). This would be suited not only to supply water to the Jaffna Peninsula but also to Mankulam and other townships between Mankulam and Jaffna,

What do you have to say about a tank of limited surface area of 10 square kilometres  in the northern part of Vadamaradchi Lagoon, that is, the proposal of Prof. Guganesarajah of Surrey University?

His proposal   is hydrologically sound. But the peculiar nature of the geological formation of the area consisting of miocene limestone has not been looked at, due to the absence of a broad-based discussion in Jaffna examining geological conditions and the possibility of the dissolution of the underlying limestone by a high water head. Until that aspect is studied thoroughly, one has to keep ones fingers crossed.

What is your opinion on Rain Water Harvesting as a solution to the water problem of the Peninsula?

Rain Water Harvesting as a project should be encouraged. But it cannot be the solution to the problem of fresh water scarcity.  Better methods to conserve the collected water in covered underground tanks to prevent evaporation  should be designed. The isolated islands of Jaffna with no road links to the Peninsular mainland should get priority in rain water harvesting, with schools in these islands benefitting first.

What about Desalination of Sea Water as the solution for the problem of Jaffna?

Desalination of sea water is not the solution to Jaffna’s water problem. It is a very expensive process and requires continuous use of electricity. It is acceptable in a country where petroleum is cheaply obtained. Further, it leaves brine as undesirable waste that has to be safely disposed. The filters of the reverse osmosis plant have to be replaced periodically at substantial cost. Experts  have worked out that a cubic metre of desalinated water will cost 1 to 2 US$ (Rs 150 to 300) whereas the current rate for water supplied to the household from rivers or tanks works out to only Rs. 35 per cubic metre of treated water. No government can afford to subsidize the cost of domestic water supplied to Jaffna through desalination of seawater.  However, any industrialist wishing to use desalinated water for his industries should be able to do so ensuring that the environment is not polluted.

Important services such as hospitals and universities could resort to the use of desalinated water, subsidized by the government. It should be the duty of a government to provide desalinated water to isolated, but populated islands, like Delft, Nainativuu and Analaitivu which will never have access to pipe-borne water.

What is your  opinion on the Oil Pollution caused by the Waste Oil dumped in the vicinity of the Chunnakam Power Station?

It was deliberately done and was continued for some time.

Was it part of a plan to reduce the population of Jaffna?

Yes. If one looks at the salinity map of the Peninsula, Chunnakam is on the east of the non-saline area with the best water in Jaffna. The oil that percolated into the ground would have travelled further to the west, also in the non-saline area and made all the areas uncultivable and even unlivable.

Did any member of the Experts Panel appointed by the Chief Minister of the Northern Province attempt to get your views on the oil pollution?

No. Had any member contacted, me, I would have given  advice on how to get the leaked oil forcibly leached into nearby wells by using an artificial head, and thereafter to use chemical sponges to absorb the oils from the wells. Unfortunately, however, the Panel was interested only in a cover up assignment.

You are a leader of a recognized political party with a certain political philosophy. You had been the Secretary to Chief Minister of the North-East Province. Later you had been Senior Advisor to the Chief Minister of the Eastern Province. The Northern Chief Minister C.V. Wigneswaran and you are known to be friends from your schooldays. Did he not seek  your services to the Northern Province despite your belonging to a different party?

He did. Chief Minister C.V. Wigneswaran and I did come to an understanding that I would serve as his Advisor once he assumed office as the Chief Minister. But, his party leader, on the urging of an important leader of the Tamil diaspora scuttled that arrangement. Now the Chief Minister has another member from the Australian diaspora as his Advisor.

Thank you Dr. Vigneswaran. I hope your immense intellect, acute power of analysis and wide experience with water and the world of work will be exploited by the NPC soon.

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Latest comments

  • 6

    Sir, Lovely article. I believe Water is a key global issue and there are so many stories such as the one that you articulate via the learned gentleman’s comments. Sub-Saharan Africa is very badly affected. A lot of conflicts seem to occur in areas that are very arid and are fast losing water. Many people feel Israel will never give up Golan Heights because it is their life supply of water for their crops. Israelis are world leaders in water management are they not? Their drip irrigation systems that I learnt of a couple of decades ago amaze me. So will diverting a river work? If deSalination plants do not work what choices do they have? What about the Aquifers? Have they all run dry? Don’t the Aquifers get replenished with rain water during the monsoons? Sad but Water is going to be a critical global factor in the near future. More and more refugees flee arid zone because of lack of basic necessities and water is one such; without water there cannot be life. I want to thank you for this wonderful Interview format article.

    Here is cut and paste verbatim on the challenges in Africa;


    I am sure in Jaffna too like elsewhere in SL, women bear the brunt of being the homemakers and water bearers too and thus are the most vulnerable section of population. Your thoughts on that Sir? In two College freshmen seminar classes I teach nowadays, we talk about Global Challenges and Water is one key subject along with terrorism and food and climate change. Of course now with my fuhrer Trump, Pence and other brilliant people like ethically challenged Pruitt in charge here in the US of A, I will have to say climate change is a hoax put upon us by China. ! :-)

  • 0

    These are the real problems the Tamil political class should be dicussing about – not about organising the next death anivesary of Mahaveeran Prabakaran.
    Water is THE most serious problem by any stretch of imagination.
    First and foremost it is of paramount importance that no tin pot local authority OUTSIDE Jafna peninsula should be capable of holding Jaffna people hostage on this issue by staging reverse Mavil Aru dramas.any time in the future. This is exactly what will happen if land powers are devolved to provinces. It may well be that future Jaffna will need water from outside and this is my main reason against so called devolution of land powers. All resources must be in the hands of the Central government for their fair ditribution among all localities.

    • 2

      soma “…………..that future Jaffna will need water from outside and this is my main reason against so called devolution of land powers………..”.
      Condescending and overly patronizing.
      In comments on the most recent HLD M article, you are praising HLD M and Dayan.
      Your slip is showing soma!!

      • 0

        Mr Pillai
        If you are confident that Jafna will never need water from outside you can say my concern for the people of Jafna sounds ‘condescending and patronizing ‘. For all “non political” problems of Tamils I am more than willing to lend my support and speak for them, including their language difficulties in communicating with the state machinery. This is an integral part of my firm conviction that small Sri Lanka should not be devided along ethnic and religious lines and all citizents should be equal in all respects under a unitary political structure.. HLDM and DJ share the same view and hence my respect for them. Why should hide that.They are among the few patriots who are using their powerful pen against the present attemps to break up Sri Lanka.

    • 2

      somass ji

      “All resources must be in the hands of the Central government for their fair ditribution among all localities.”

      Good idea, we saw how Dutta Gamani and his under study swindled large funds allocated Mahaweli Development programme . JR was very happy when he described Dutta Gamani as the richest person in South Asia.

      The state auditors seem do not have b***s to audit all major projects. Ministers in charge with absolute power/authority are/were able to loot large part of the funds and invest abroad in apple orchards in Australia, Expensive Mansions in UK and USA, dollar deposits bank accounts in Asian, African countries, …………… Further if he/she is a public racist it help to cover up their sins.

      Were you one of the racists who looted the treasury and people under a unitary state? Have you ever call for value money audit on all projects expenditure exceeding certain threshold? You won’t probably you are one of the beneficiaries.

  • 0

    [Edited out] Comments should not exceed 300 words.Please read our Comments Policy for further details.

    • 0

      Dr Lionel Bopage, MIEAust and CPEng (Retd)
      Please break your comment into two or more pieces

  • 2

    The Uthayan which covers events in Jaffna supposedly reported the Seminar. Readers went away with the impression that only MPC CVK Sivagnanam spoke. The names of the two principal speakers K. Vigneswaran and Ramadass who from their lifelong engineering involvement gave invaluable information and observations were hardly even mentioned. Sivagnanam’s was mainly a valid plea for the professionals to put things right in the north, but he frankly admitted that he had little engineering knowledge.

    One could see how the Press, politics and the university in the North are producing a nation of frogs-in-the-well. Or is it that the reporters’ ears are closed to anything said in English?

    • 2

      /Ramadass who from their lifelong engineering involvement gave invaluable information and observations were hardly even mentioned./

      It is well known that Ramadass is a political player for his economic gains. Look at his Euroville dealings and you would know all. He was with Douglas during the dark days, and even had a position in the University Senate!

      • 1

        If a scholar is a man of character, that is comforting to know. If we don’t know the man well enough, it is better to keep the man and the scholar separate, until we have good reason to judge character.

  • 4

    There are genuine concerns of Kilinochchi cultivators that need addressing.
    They need assurance that they will not be deprived of water for cultivation especially during dry years and have a say in the way water is managed.
    Ensuring adequate water requires elimination of loss by seepage from irrigation canals. That should be done before taking water out of the tank.
    There should be consultation with the local population for people know the issues and implications of the project.
    Also, the water needs treatment and regulation at source. Tank water has blue-green algae with can perish for lack of aeration during delivery, and treatment after delivery will not remove the toxins released.
    Iranamadu was developed for irrigation. Land under cultivation has increased much since the 1970’s and demand for water will rise. Viewing the problem solely as one to quench the thirst of Jaffna is unhealthy.
    A comprehensive view of both agricultural and personal use is essential to avert its becoming a Jaffna v. Kilinochchi political problem.
    Although the water requirement of Jaffna cannot be met by water conservation alone, conservation to the maximum is a healthy approach. Every drop conserved helps to minimise waste.
    The river for Jaffna project should be expedited irrespectively of moves to supply Jaffna with fresh water.
    Jaffna should demonstrate its will to help itself before it seeks support from other sources.
    Dr KV is pointing fingers at persons without offering evidence.
    He appears to blame the FP leader for the failures of the CM, NPC.
    The mess that the NPC is has more to do with the CM’s incompetence than anything else.

    • 2


      If my memory is right, KV’s name was associated with the EPDP and later Pilliayan. Can he his explain rationale ?

      In fact, I think it is important for him to explain it clearly if people are to take him seriously.

      • 2


        He was an adviser to old EPRLF. I was told he is gifted with immense knowledge of the land and water resources who was at Bengalore talks playing a constructive role. He left EPDP and formed his own party and I have not heard about the party ever since.

        “In fact, I think it is important for him to explain it clearly if people are to take him seriously.”

        I am told he is an asset to this island.

      • 3

        There are two aspects to KV: the political one has been unacceptable to me for long. This is not the place for details.
        He was a very competent irrigation engineer and also a very well organized person as Secretary to the NEPC when Varatharajaperumal was CM.
        Sadly, many development projects for the North are more political than professional matters including the steel cage project promoted by minister DMMS who has sought Dr KV’s support for it.
        The political dimension to Iranamadu worries me, as insensitive handling will divide people on a regional basis.
        My concerns arise from the lack of a holistic view of the matter as evident in many of the enthusiasts as well as outright opponents.

    • 1

      Tourism seems to be the Biggest Water Waster in Jaffna. Tourists and Politicians expect their Sheets and Towels to be replaced Daily, even if they are staying more than One Day!
      Middle Eastern Countries Post notices in Bedrooms about the necessity of Conserving Water and ask Tourists to hang up their used Bedding and Towels, so that they need not be replaced Daily.

      • 0

        There is a simple solution – charge extra.

        • 2

          somass ji

          “There is a simple solution – charge extra”

          Good idea.

          I have been thinking about ways and means to stop foreigners coming into my ancestral home. Thanks for your support soma ji.

    • 2


      “The mess that the NPC is has more to do with the CM’s incompetence than anything else.”

      Lets replace him with Wimal Sangili Karuppan Weerawansa and Dayan as job sharing Chief Ministers.

  • 0

    Read research papers and agriculture & irrigation related articles coming from ISrael. Theyn you have every thing.

  • 0

    Soma, I endorse fully your golden words. Pillai and his team are still in the deep slumber by not knowing the reality. We should learn from Singapore who with Malasia established decades long mutual understanding to share water. Today both countries are in a win-win situation. It is a universal fact that Jaffna peninsula is fast becoming a desert. It is due to drop in rain fall and sea water entering into lagoons and the most crucial point is without proper sewerage system fresh water bed is getting contaminated. In the light of all these problems Jaffna peninsula’s fresh water resources is gradually deteriorating. It is a matter of time. Therefore diverting water stream from else is mandatory.

    • 1

      Paramanathan K is another one of these Singaporefile. On one occasion Malaysia threatened water cut. Singapore threatened war and that was it. Why the hell do you think Singapore spends so much on its armed services?
      Lot of Malaysian rulers have invested in Singapore and they will never risk losing all that.
      Can you see a basic contradiction in your puerile comparison.

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